By David Leggat
A few summers back, South Africa were touring New Zealand and one of the Tests was on John Reid’s home turf at the Basin Reserve.
Reid was in attendance, part of a reunion with a handful of surviving team-mates from the 1961-62 team, which achieved a remarkable 2-2 drawn series in South Africa.
Reid’s chair, along with several others in the room reserved for Wellington cricket royalty, had his name fixed to it. So there they were, these old survivors from one of New Zealand’s more memorable overseas tours, grouped together, watching, reminiscing, Testing their memories.
Through a quirk of its design, Reid’s chair sat significantly higher than the others, giving him the appearance of the senior, or most significant of that group of men.
Sitting in the TV commentary box, South African batting great Barry Richards noticed this and remarked to the effect how appropriate that was, given Reid’s status as both a player and immense figure in New Zealand sport.
Reid, who has died aged 92, was a giant of New Zealand cricket.
There had been outstanding players who preceded him, such as Stewie Dempster, Martin Donnelly and Jack Cowie, while Reid’s career ran parallel with that of Bert Sutcliffe, a wonderful left-handed batsman, still talked of in any discussion on New Zealand’s finest all-time batsmen.
But Reid was different. He was a terrific player, but he also led New Zealand to its first three Test wins, in days when they were scarce.
He was a forceful personality, didn’t suffer fools and was rarely anything less than an assertive performer, whether batting, bowling his aggressive medium pace offcutters, or snaffling sharp catching chances with deceptive ease.
His Test numbers did not shout off the page -- batting average of 33.28, six centuries in 58 matches, 85 wickets at 33 – but spectators sat up when Reid strode to the crease. When he was ‘on’, there were few more arresting sights in the game.
In those pre-doosra years, he had little time for offspinners, believing they belonged among the spectators sitting in the arc from square leg to long on.
As a youngster, Reid was part of a remarkable Hutt Valley High School athletic team. It also included 1950 Empire Games 220 yard gold medallist Don Jowett; legendary All Black wing Ron Jarden and another 1950 Games athlete, hurdler Robert Smith.
Selected at 19 for the 1949 team to tour England, Reid made half centuries in his first two Tests – and kept wicket in the second at The Oval for good measure.
He then endured a horror run – 58 runs in 12 successive Test innings.
‘’It was no secret,’’ Reid recalled in Sword of Willow. ’’I was kept in the New Zealand team in the hope that I would come right and make some runs.’’
Amen for selectors who back their hunches.
His selection for the 1953-54 tour of South Africa was roundly criticised, but with his first Test century, 135 at Cape Town, he was off and away.
During that tour, Reid and Sutcliffe were unimpressed when captain Geoff Rabone, a no-nonsense character, called for a practice at 6.30am after a poor patch of form and results and wanting to wake his players up, so to speak.
So the pair turned up to the nets in their pyjamas.
The young Reid was a teetotaller. The story goes he had his first taste of champagne when celebrating New Zealand’s debut Test victory over the West Indies at Eden Park in 1956.
Sitting at the top table at functions, mingling and sharing a drink with strangers was not to Reid’s taste, until he had to assume the captain’s responsibilities.
As captain, he would often turn to himself if a wicket was sorely needed, and at times his expectations of his players’ capabilities did not match their talents.
He rewrote record books on the 1961-62 tour of South Africa, a country he enjoyed so much he spent several seasons there coaching later in life.
Reid rattled up 546 runs at 60.7 in the five Tests. In all first-class matches he hit 1915 runs at 68.4; next best was 714 from Graham Dowling. He toppled the previous South African touring aggregates of some of the game’s greats including Denis Compton, Neil Harvey, Len Hutton and Jack Hobbs on that spectacular trek.
At Lancaster Park in March 1963, Reid made what may well have been his best century. He followed 74 in the first innings against England with 100 out of a total of 159 on a difficult pitch.
One report described Reid as ‘’bristling with pugnacity’’ against the Fred Trueman-led attack. Just two other batsmen made double figures.
Earlier that summer, Reid had made 296 in 220 minutes for Wellington against Northern Districts at the Basin Reserve. That included a world record 15 sixes, sailing past the previous first-class record of 11.
It was ‘’the most fantastic innings in Basin Reserve history,’’ reported the Dominion.
"No bowler was beyond his dominion. He made mincemeat of the off-spinners, luncheon sausage of the medium-pacers - a butcher without mercy."
The ND attack that day included the current All Black fullback Don Clarke, a good enough fast medium bowler to have narrowly missed selection for a tour to England in 1958.
It sounded ho-hum at one point in the radio broadcast as the announcer said in deadpan manner: ‘’Reid swings again and…..it’s another six’’.
The record wasn’t eclipsed for 32 years.
He marked his 50th successive Test with four sixes in his first 10 balls one day in Kolkata on his final tour in 1965.
There was a final flourish, a half century against England in his last Test before he was gone.
Reid retired with records for most Tests, most as captain, most runs, most catches, most wickets for New Zealand.
Captaining a star-packed Rest of the World team against England was a fitting way to leave the international game. It was a tribute to his standing and immense contribution to the game.
You can only wonder at what a powerful presence he would have had if limited-overs cricket had arrived in his time.
Reid had stints as an NZCC President, a New Zealand selector, manager and an International Cricket Council match referee overseeing 50 Tests. His firm enforcement of the spirit of the game didn’t always sit well with the modern players which was very much to his credit.
His was a career in which much of his time was spent fighting losing causes; trying to pull New Zealand up to the next level.
As Dick Brittenden, New Zealand’s foremost cricket writer, put it: ‘’He was never more dangerous than when his back was to the wall.
‘’His bat barked with authority and assertiveness. He breathed life into a game by his very presence.’’
*David Leggat is one of New Zealand’s foremost cricket writers, having toured extensively with the New Zealand cricket team during stints with the New Zealand Press Association, and as Chief Cricket Writer for the New Zealand Herald. His father, Gordon, was a former New Zealand Test batsman, New Zealand selector, manager, and NZCC chairman.